Winter Project

Kennon-Green & Co. Fiduciary Financial Advisor, Wealth Management, Global Value Investing

I’ve been thinking about you this Christmas season.  This audience is unique.  Demographically, you represent a collection of men and women with far above average talents, connections, and resources.  The power you have to change lives in your own communities is huge.  A small amount of output, when you set your mind to it, can have a disproportionately large benefit for the families around you, whether they be your own relatives, friends, co-workers, or strangers.  

[mainbodyad]You are better educated, have higher incomes, and exist in corridors of power that others don’t.  You are 50% more likely than the typical Internet reader to earn $150,000+ each year, 17% more likely to earn $100,000 to $150,000, and 7% more likely to earn $50,000 to $100,000.   You are 57% more likely than the typical Internet reader to have a graduate degree.  You are nearly 17% more likely to fall into the prime 18-44 year old demographic, meaning mobility and health aren’t impediments to most of you.  Quite literally, you are Senators, scientists, doctors, lawyers, portfolio managers, executives, teachers, and community leaders.

Why is this on my mind?  Many of you have noticed that I haven’t been around much this December.  Part of the reason has to do with the companies, which are running full throttle this time of year.  The other part is because the spouse and I decided three weeks ago to undertake one of our regular projects that involves serving others using our talents and skills in a way that makes their life better.  

Normally, when we launch one of these projects, I never mention it.  It’s done in silence, often anonymous, and we act as if it never happened with most of the people completely oblivious to what we’ve done.  But given my unique platform through this blog, and your resources, I realized I’m going about it all wrong despite my usual preference for discretion.  If even a small portion of you adopt the same project, the benefits would be immeasurable.

This winter, I want you to try your own version of this project.  You need to trust me on this because not only will it help people, it can change your life.  It can pay dividends in the most unexpected of ways.

Setting Up Your Own Winter Project

Here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Come up with a code name for your 30-day project.  Don’t tell anyone what it is.
  2. During the duration of the project, go through your day actively looking for opportunities to make the lives of people around you better by contributing your time, skills, resources, connections, or other means.  From small to large, every night before you go to bed, you should be able to point to something you did that day and say, “I made this better”.  If you are a carpenter, that may mean helping your neighbor build a toy chest for his kids.  If you are a great chef, it may mean bringing a meal to a sick neighbor.  If you are a business owner, it might mean kicking more money into the profit sharing pool.  Once you’ve done it, resolve to never mention it again to the person for whom you did it.  It’s a gift.  No strings attached.  No expectations.  Be selfless.
  3. Keep a journal about your activities during the project; who you helped, why you helped them, and what you learned from the experience.  This step will help you not only be grateful for the things you have in your own life, it can serve as an important self-reflection tool that illuminates your own motivations.

Use Your Unique Abilities and Resources to Leverage Your Influence

You don’t have to move mountains.  You don’t even have to change the world.  You just have to change your world.

For example, back at the beginning of the month, I did Social Security audits for those around me.  I helped one of my family members change the way they structure their business taxes so that their spouse will qualify for an extra $400,000 in Social Security benefits over the course of the remaining life expectancy without very much additional out-of-pocket expense.  That should make a tremendous difference in the standard of living they enjoy once they retire.

Two weeks ago, I took the portfolio assets of one married couple in my family, removed it from a pooled fund that was charging them almost $3,000 per year in fees, and setup a do-it-yourself index fund that costs exactly $0 to maintain each year (and $0 to setup because I got in touch with one of my brokers and negotiated 600 free commissions based on the account size so there was no expense in purchasing the initial stocks).  Assuming average rates of return, over the remainder of their natural life expectancy, it should add an extra $650,000 in wealth to their estate that would have gone to financial institutions and money managers.

None of these things in isolation is particularly remarkable.  Yet, taken together, a few hours of my life resulted in the people around me increasing their lifetime income by well over $1,000,000 with no additional work on their part.  That money will just flow into their hands because I used my knowledge to readjust them into a more favorable position.  Even if they aren’t grateful, even if they forget decades from now, I know what I’ve done.

Winter Project

Christmas is a wonderful time to implement this project, and I normally do it in the winter of each year, but there is no reason you couldn’t do it in spring, summer, or autumn. The important thing is to incorporate it into your life and do it regularly.
Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic and created by Nicholas Jones on November 23, 2010 “Galeries Lafayette – christmas decorations”.

We used our cooking skills to make the holidays a bit more delicious for those around us, making large batches of Christmas Cookies to give out as gifts.

I locked myself away in the home study for several days on end for the sole purpose of responding to hundreds of contact form submissions, some of which were thousands of words.  I responded to college students, business owners, retirees, and working families who had questions about finance, economics, accounting, investing, and debt; from helping someone track down old stock certificates to research holdings they had inherited to looking over pension plans to explain the minutiae in easy-to-understand bullet points.  (If you still haven’t received a response from me, it’s largely luck.  There are still 1,279 or so non-responded or non-opened messages sitting in the inbox after I managed to knock off 300-400 over that few day period.  I just randomly click a page and start working my way through each submission.)

I setup and funded the custodial accounts for two of my nieces and nephews thus far, which are now open and ready to begin buying stocks.  The only remaining step is setting up automatic contributions from various members of the family to regularly add new funds to the portfolios for me to invest on their behalf until they turn 21 years old.  Even with tiny amounts contributed from each branch of the family tree, I should be able to build up $50,000 to $100,000 for each of them to take on their journey into adulthood.  (I think of it as my financial equivalent of the old man in the cave in The Legend of Zelda, It’s dangerous to go alone!  Take this.“)

Now, I’m reviewing new grants for the Kennon & Green Foundation.  With the stock market shattering records this year, the equities it holds increased quite a bit from their levels twelve months ago so it might be time to distribute some of that money to worthy causes or, maybe, even contribute some appreciated securities to build its asset base.

The list is long, and I keep 99% of it private (again, most of the time, the person benefiting doesn’t even know we’re the ones who did it).  And you have the same power!  Use it!

The Manifestation of Your Contribution Can Come In Countless Different Forms

Are you an astrophysicist?  I know some of you are.  Go down to your local elementary school or high school and work with the administration to create an after-school club for the science geeks who want to learn about the universe.  You could change the trajectory of one of those kid’s lives.  One of them could grow up to be the next Neil deGrasse Tyson, who will bring the discipline the masses.  Your influence, even if never acknowledged, will have exponential second and third order benefits to the civilization.

Are you a stylist or own a salon?  Make a deal with the soup kitchen in your hometown to provide free shampoos and haircuts to anyone who wants one.  Go to your local grocery or drug store and make a deal to have the supplies donated so they get good press and you aren’t out any cash.

[mainbodyad]Do you own a local car dealership?  Sure, you could use the money to buy a block of Coca-Cola, but, instead, pay for the uniforms of a local Little League.  Who knows?  You might even get the money back because people in town are subconsciously biased toward your brand due to your support.  If you don’t, that’s okay.  That’s not the point.

Are you a dentist?  Go talk to a Narcotics Anonymous group and, as a reward for reaching a certain sobriety milestone, agree to donate your skills to help restore the damage done by people who spent years struggling with methamphetamine; in turn, helping their career prospects and their children.

All of this is a verbose way of saying the oft-forgotten verse by one of history’s most famous evangelists: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”  Investing is not just a matter of putting money out today for the return of more money tomorrow.  You should be making social investments in the places you live, and the people you encounter, so that everyone who comes into contact with you is blessed in some way.  Being that kind of person is an active choice.  You can’t just nod and say, “That’s a nice idea.”  You have to be the person to actually walk into Wal-Mart and secretly pay off all of the lay-a-way items.  You have to be the person to find some struggling family and leave groceries on their front porch.  Don’t wait on someone else to do it.  Think of it as your job.

If you adopt this now, I promise you it will become one of the most rewarding things in your life.  Writing a check is sometimes nice, but it won’t change you.  Tap into your skill set, roll up your sleeves, and get involved.  Plus, it’s great practice for keeping your own abilities sharp.  You get to walk around every day playing the secret agent, paying attention, spying, looking for opportunities to improve things.  It is a lot of fun.  You might be surprised how much of your own creativity it unleashes, and that then floods over into other areas of your life.